Thursday, July 29, 2010

Bad Intel

When I'm doing a saddle fitting, I depend pretty heavily on the rider to give me input and feedback.  I need to know how the saddle feels for them, how they feel about their position, and how they feel their horse is going.  This is especially true if we're working with someone long-distance:  templates, photos and rider input is all we have to go on.  However, some info is better than other info ... I'll give you a few scenarios to illustrate my point.


I recently had a fitting appointment with a woman who was looking for a dressage saddle.  I asked her what saddle fitting issues she'd been having in the past, and she replied that every saddle she tried on her horse was "too tight behind the shoulders".   She'd tried 5 or 6 different saddles in varying widths, but all had the same problem.  Since everything in saddle fitting can be open to interpretation, I took her word for it, though the horse didn't appear to have any major fitting issues.  I found a few saddles that looked like good candidates (and that she'd liked sitting in on the buck), so she tacked her horse up in the first one and started riding around the arena.  I watched as she walked and trotted, and the saddle looked like a pretty darn good fit - there was no popping in the cantle at the rising trot, the saddle wasn't slipping forward or backward (or rolling side-to-side), and the horse was moving out well.  The rider looked comfortable and balanced, too.  She cantered in both directions, and things were looking about perfect.  She brought her horse to the walk, let the reins out to the buckle, and got a free walk that should have scored a "10" in a dressage test.  I was about to tell her how good everything looked when I noticed that she was glaring down at the pommel of the saddle.

"This saddle is doing the same thing all the others did!"  she exclaimed.

I was totally flummoxed.  Everything looked perfect to my eye, and the horse sure seemed happy, so what in the world was she seeing?  "Could you show me what you mean?" I asked.

She tucked her whip under her thigh, leaned forward, and proceeded to stuff her fingers under the panels of the saddle, right under the tree points, behind the horse's shoulders.  "I can't get my hands in there!"

"Well," I relpied, "you're not really supposed to be able to."

"Why not?"  she countered.

Fortunately, I'm usually pretty good at thinking on my feet.  Since it would have been impolitic to say, "Well, you have your whole body weight in the saddle, which is weighing it down pretty effectively, so why would you think you should be able to fit your hands in there?!", I had to find another explanation.  Then, I noticed that she was wearing tall boots.  "Can you stick your hands down the top of your boot?"

"Of course not!"

"Do they fit well?"

"Of course!" she answered.

"Same sort of thing here," I told her.  "You want the saddle to fit like your boots:  not too tight, not too loose, no big gaps and no pinching."  I also explained about wanting even pressure under the entire length of the tree points, and how lack of pressure - or too much pressure - can cause problems.

I just have to wonder how many of the saddles she tried really did fit well ...

MORAL:  Your hands do not belong under your saddle - at least not when you're IN it.  Don't try to put them there.


I was chatting on the phone with a customer who'd sent photos and a template, discussing tree width.  She said she knew her horse wasn't happy in a medium-tree County, and when I saw the tracings, I could see why:  the tracings showed the horse to be a hoop tree candidate ... and at least an extra-wide hoop tree, at that.  When I relayed that information, there was a moment of silence on her end of the phone, then, "Oh." 

I blathered on quite happily, telling her which saddles offer the hoop tree, when she interrupted.

"There's no way my horse is that broad."

I said, "If your tracings are correct, we're looking at an extra-wide hoop ..."

"There is NO WAY my horse is that wide." 

"Well, I'm afraid the tracings I'm seeing are definitely matching the extra-wide ..."

"My. horse. is. not. that. fat,"  She said, a little shakily.

"Oh, width doesn't equate to fat," I explained.  "Lots of breeds are very well-sprung in the ribs and broad.  I see your mare is a Morgan - Arab cross, and both of those breeds tend to be ..."


I sighed mentally.  "Of course not - I wasn't inferring that at all, honestly.  Extra-wide trees don't ..."

"I just can't get my head around that," she said.  "My horse is only 14.3."

I plowed on.  "Height isn't much of an indicator of tree width, really.  Lots of the smaller breeds - smaller in height, I mean - are wider than the bigger breeds.  According to the tracings you sent ..."

"She's really NOT fat!" she wailed.  "If you're saying she's an extra-wide, it means you think she's FAT!"

"No, no, not at all," I assured her.  "You can see in the photos that she's really very fit.  It's just that she has the broad back that's pretty typical of her ..."

"I'll ... I'll need to call you back."  She sounded very close to tears.  "I just can't get my head around that.  Extra-wide?!?!"  And she hung up the phone.

MORAL:  Wide does not equal fat.


I was doing a fitting on a Morgan gelding who was ... well, let's say "conformationally challenged."  He was 15 h. at the withers and 15.2 h. at the croup (which was flat as a table); he had upright pasterns, an upright shoulder, a 6" long neck, long cannon bones, forelegs that appeared to come out of the same hole in an incredibly narrow chest, and almost no detectable hock.  "He's built like a saw horse," his owner explained, and I thought that was a pretty accurate description.  The owner said he needed a narrow tree, but when I looked at his back, I'd have said at least a medium-wide, if not wider.  I plunked the owner's existing saddle, an old medium-wide Albion Comfort, on his back and did a quick assessment.  It met all the criteria of the Heavy Seven, though a strip-flock was definitely in order. 

"Have you been having any problems with this saddle?"  I asked.

"No, not at all," she replied.  "But after realizing how narrow he is, I thought there was no way a medium-wide saddle should be fitting correctly."

"The Albions tend to run on the generous side when it comes to tree width," I said.  "He'd likely need a wide tree in some saddles."

"But look at how narrow he is!"  she insisted.

I looked at the horse.  That back was pretty broad, and when I turned to the owner to say as much, I realized that she was NOT looking at his back.  She was staring directly at his chest, and said,  "I'm surprised to hear you say the saddle fits well, considering ..."

"Well, when I say he's wide, I'm looking at his back ... not his chest."

The owner stepped up beside her horse's shoulder and gazed at his back.  "OH!  NOW I see what you mean ..."

MORAL:  In saddle fitting, it's the width of the BACK we consider.


As I said earlier, we do a lot of work with the help of photos.  When assessing fit, we ask for photos like these:

Sometimes, if rear panel contact is in question, we'll ask for photos like this:

But what we DON'T need are photos like these:

That's a cute face, but it tells me zip about saddle fitting needs or issues.

Again, a nice-looking horse, but I can tell nothing about what he might need for a saddle.

Ok, we have definite clearance over the withers, but that's about all I can tell ...

I can't even see the saddle, let alone the back ... impossible to tell anything about fit.  Nice tail, though ...

The saddle's not girthed up, and it's way too far forward.  I'm also hoping that the horse didn't take two big steps to his right and drop the saddle in that mud puddle ...

The red saddle nail tells me this is a Duett ... or an Albion ... or perhaps a Keiffer ... but that's all.

I'm not even totally sure what this one is ... I think it's a horse's back ...

Anyway, bottom line:  I need good info to do my job.  This doesn't mean professional photos or reams of poetry about how the saddle feels for you or a dissertation on how your horse is going ... but clear, concise input from you makes my job a ton easier, and increases the likelihood that your saddle search will be as short and painless as possible!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Symmetrical ... Or Not.

Most horses are sided, the same as most people.  Often, I find it's the left side that's dominant and bigger (and I have the templates to bear that out); but whether it's left or right side, their larger/dominant side is usually the side to which they bend and track well, while going in the opposite direction - and having to stretch that contracted, muscle-y side - is harder.  And whatever discipline we ride, one of our goals should be to make our horses as evenly developed as possible. (If this sounds familiar, I did touch on some of this in my "Ground Work and In-Hand Exercises" post from April of '09).  And to that end, dear readers, we do NOT want our saddles to be adjusted asymmetrically ... at least, unless we have a saddle fitter on retainer, and a huge disposable income and nothing better to spend it on than eternal saddle fit adjustments!

There are plenty of fitters out there who'll adjust your flocking - and in some cases, even your tree - to match your horse's asymmetries.  (NOTE:  Anyone who tries to adjust a spring tree asymmetrically will in all likelihood make the tree so it can't sucessfully be straightened, and it will probably never sit correctly again.  Most spring trees should only be adjusted once - symmetrically - no more than one tree size.)  And while there may be a short-term benefit to that, doing so - in my opinion - can cause more harm than it alleviates.  Why?  Consider this:

You have a nice mare who had some soundness issues that took about 6 months to correct.  As a result, her right side is considerably larger and more muscled than her left; she goes along quite happily to the right, but going left is a nightmare.  So you get a saddle that fits her right side well, but the left ... well, there's a 3/4" gap.  So the fitter says, "I can make that gap go away!"  and proceeds to either flock that side heavily to compensate, or tweaks the tree so the left side suits the lack of muscle.  The saddle fits perfectly, the fitter goes away, and you start working your mare five days a week.

For the first few weeks, things are going pretty well.  The mare's getting better about tracking left, her muscles are growing and she's getting much more balanced.  Then, you notice she's getting fussy about bending left, and she no longer picks up the left lead canter as easily as she did, and you're starting to feel as though you're sitting a bit crooked.  You run your hands down your mare's back under the front of the saddle, and notice that the left side feels awfully tight.  You remember that the saddle was fitted asymetrically, so you call your fitter to come address the issue.  Fitter comes out, adjusts the flock / tree, charges you between $100 and $400, and everything's fine.  A few more weeks down the road, the mare's starting to have issues going to the left again, and the left side of the saddle feels tight again.  You call your fitter, fitter comes, charges you another $100 - $400, and all's well.  A few more weeks pass, and the issues are starting again ... You call your fitter, but this time, your fitter can't get to you for a month.  So you soldier on, with your mare getting more and more sour about bending left ... and then bending right ... and then being saddled at all.  By the time your appointment rolls around, your mare's so sore and cranky that you have to cancel because your vet / chiro told you (after a $250 visit) that she at least two weeks off to heal - or worse, that she's seriously aggrivated whatever it was that caused the 6-month lay-up. Or perhaps your mare was in so much pain that she started bucking, launched you into the arena fence, and now you're laid up with a concussion / broken collar bone / broken ribs / separated shoulder (which isn't nearly as painful as the cost of a visit to the ER was).  You (and/or your mare) are out of commission, you've lost training time, and the asymmetry is still there.

Here's a second scenario:

Same mare, same issues, same asymmetry.  Again, you get a saddle that fits her right side well, but the left ... well, there's a 3/4" gap.  So your fitter says, "Why don't we address this issue with a shim pad?"  You buy a correction pad for $130, put 3 shims in to fill the gap, and off you go.  A couple weeks later, you notice the left side of the saddle's getting a little tight, so you remove one of the shims.  A few weeks later, the muscle's grown enough to remove another shim; finally, 10 or 12 or 14 weeks after the initial fitting, you can remove the last shim pad.  Your fitter comes out, tweaks the flock, charges you between $100 and $200, and you're good to go for about 6 or 8 months - longer, in some cases.

You do the math. 

Friday, July 9, 2010

Interpreting the Template

Saddle fitting templates can be a little like heiroglyphics:  if you don't know how to read them, they won't make much sense.  But unlike heiroglyphics, it doesn't require years of study to crack the code.  At Trumbull Mtn. Tack, we do the bulk of our business long-distance, through the use of templates and photos, so being able to read a template and understand how it relates to the accompanying photos is a requirement.  If you look at them as a whole, they can seem to be a whole bunch of unrelated lines ... but if you break each tracing down, it's pretty easy to decipher.

Let's take a look at an example:

The tracing marked #1 is taken 3 fingers' width behind the rear edge of the scapula.  This tracing shows the tree width that the horse needs, and if any modifications are needed to the front of the panels, such as a full front gusset or wither gussets.  In this case, wither gussets might be a good option, based on the "dips" in the tracing.

The #2 tracing gives an idea of the panel configuration needed.  In this case, the panels will need a bit of angle - we're not looking at a real "roof" back here, but it's not entirely flat, either.

The topline tracing, at the bottom of the template, shows how much curve the tree will have to have, and shows if rear panel modifications may be needed.  In this case, we're dealing with a good wither that's consdierably higher than the slightly "dippy" back, so we'll need a tree with some curve and a fairly generous rear gusset; there's a drop or 2 1/2" from the first tracing to the second.

So, if we start with tracing #1, the first thing we'll need to determine is tree width.  There are a couple different ways of determining this.  First is to use templates provided by the saddle companies.  Here, we're comparing it with the Frank Baines medium:

The template is slightly narrower than the first tracing, so let's try a Baines med-wide template:

Almost perfect.  There is that dip on the left side, but that can be dealt with either with flocking (if it's a long-standing issue that won't change) or a correction pad.

Just for giggles, let's see how this horse measures in the Black Country templates.  Here's the medium template:

Almost perfect.  Maybe just the tiniest bit narrow, but well within the acceptable parameters.  Now, compared to the Black Country med-wide:

Again, just about perfect - perhaps a teeny bit wide, but again, definitely acceptable.  And if you have to err one way or the other, wider is better than narrower, since you can add flock or use a thicker / correction pad.

Now, what if you don't have a saddle company's width templates, or what if the customer is looking for a used saddle?  Here's the method we use.  First, we get a "generic" reading by using the Wintec Gullet gauge:

To use it on a horse, you place the "legs" of the gauge in the spot where you'd take your first tracing (3 fingers' width behind the rear edge of the scapula, where the tree points ideally sit); the color indicated on the top left of the gauge will then tell you which gullet plate you'll need in the saddle.

Yellow is narrow, green is med-narrow, and so on.

When used on the tracing, it shows that it measures a medium-wide.

So we take the blue med-wide Wintec plate, and compare it to some different saddles.  Keep in mind that the gullet plate dips in a bit on the legs rather than running straight, so you have to look at the overall angle of the leg and discount the dip.

Here's the gullet compared with a med-wide Black Country Wexford (angle of the tree point is shown in green in all the following photos):

This tree is a bit narrower than what we'd need - probably would have to go to a wide tree in this particular saddle.

Next is a medium-wide Baines Enduro LDR:

Too narrow again - another saddle where we'd probably go up to a wide tree.

Here's a medium-wide Black Country Celeste (built on a hoop tree). 

The angle of the tree comes closer, but the full front gusset will make it fit less generously. (This horse isn't a good candidate for a hoop tree, but I wanted to toss this in just for comparison.)  The full front gusset is often a good fitting option for a withery horse, but the change in fit is something to keep in mind.

Here's another med-wide hoop tree (a Black Country Eloquence X this time):

This is very close to perfect ... IF the horse were a hoop tree candidate!

Here's a med-wide Albion SLK:

NOW we've found a good candidate - at least in the width department. 
Just for giggles, let's try a couple more.  Here's a med-wide Black Country Vinici ...
... which looks like another winner.
And finally, here's a med. tree Passier Corona with Freedom panels:

Yet another good possibility, though the Freedom panels might provide a little too much room in the pommel arch (similar to the problem with the hoop tree).

Now that we've decided on tree width, let's look at rear panel configuration.  There's a pretty wide variation in panel thickness, even among gusseted panels:


And since saddles are (for the most part) hand-crafted, there can be quite a lot of variation even in the same make and model.  The gussets below are all on Frank Baines Caprioles:

Since this horse has about 3.5" of drop, the saddle will need to have a pretty generous rear gusset. 

A plain panel (below) wouldn't begin to offer enough lift for the rear of the saddle:

Neither would a panel with a thin gusset:

You'd need a much thicker panel, like so:

Now, tree shape.  We'll need something with some scoop and perhaps a high head to accommodate the big difference between back and wither. 

This tree would be far too flat, and would bridge like a plank over a ditch:

As would this one:

This is closer:

As is this one:

Better yet:

But if I had to pull two off the rack - with no modifications - the two below would be my choices:

A Frank Baines Omni high head:

And an Albion SLK high head:

Both have a curved tree and a very generous rear panel, so - assuming the front panel configuration and tree width were correct, either of these would have a pretty good chance of working, based on the template.

Just one caveat here:  the template and photos only show the horse at one static moment in time - and fitting a moving horse with a rider up can be a whole different story.  Perhaps the horse lifts his back considerably when he starts to move, and the more curved trees tends to rock, or perhaps the rear gusset is a bit too thick, and makes the saddle sit pommel-low and jam in behind the horse's shoulders.  That's why we offer the week trial period, and ask for so many photos.  There may be one or two things you and your horse really like about a particular saddle, and one or two that you don't ... so sometimes we work through the process of elimination, trying this or that before we find the saddle with the right combination of everything for you and your horse.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Used Saddle Safety Check (Bargain or Bust?)

It's funny how one issue can pop up repeatedly.  Lately, it's been used saddle safety.  First, one of my regular customers brought me a saddle she'd bought on eBay (and had gotten for a song) to have the flock evened out.  Closer inspection revealed that the "new" billets were of seriously crappy quality, looking like an unholy marriage of old laminate stirrup leathers (for the top) and old laminate billets (used as the bottom):

Yes, those holes are uneven.
The round holes go all the way through the billets.  The oval holes must have been leftovers from the old, split laminate billets they salvaged to put this pair together!

Whoever made these tried to stitch them together, but missed a rather long stretch, which allowed the billets to ...

... split.  Highly unsafe.

Anyway ... They'd been sewn on with what looked like dental floss.  The stitching on the middle billet was loose, the tree was alarmingly soft, and the stitching that held the rear of the panels on was broken.  I repaired everything, and even with my charges, the customer had a sound and useable saddle for a very good price. Then, a customer returned a used saddle she'd had on trial because it "squeaked" and she was worried about the tree's integrity.  (I took it apart.  It was fine ... just squeaky.)  Third, someone on one of the bulletin boards wanted to know how to tell if the used saddle she was trying had a broken tree.  So I guess the Horse Gods and Goddesses are telling me it's time to do an entry about safety checks on saddles.

If you're buying a used saddle from a reputable shop, chances are very good that the shop has already done a safety check.  But if you're buying from some other source, that individual might not be knowledgeable enough to determine if there are safety issues with the saddle they're selling (like the person who made the billets pictured above, or the person who once asked me - in all seriousness - if I thought she should sell her saddle because "my horse fell over on his back and rolled on the saddle - I guess he didn't like it, so I'm thinking I should sell it?").  So if you're buying a used saddle (or selling one, particularly given the litigious society in which we live), here's a checklist.  Keep in mind that the only way to tell for sure if a saddle has a broken tree or other "internal injuries" is to have a saddler / fitter drop the panels and expose the tree ... but this list can give you an idea if such measures are necessary.

First, eyeball the saddle, either with it sitting on a saddle buck, or with the pommel on the ground and the cantle in hand.  Sight down the approximate center of the cantle, and see if everything looks normal from front to back. The following are examples of what you don't want to see:

The yellow dot is the center of the pommel, and the red dot is the center of the cantle.  Note that the two don't line up.  This saddle tree was twisted from being consistently mounted from the ground.  This is an issue that can sometimes be corrected by a saddler ... and sometimes it can't.  The tree can be straightened, but whether it will stay straight is anyone's guess.

Again, the center of the pommel is marked in yellow; center of the cantle, in red.  The green line shows the misalignment of the saddle nails.  The panels are flocked and sewn on unevenly.  This saddle was practically brand-new, but was an "economy" model ... and  was crooked due to poor manufacture.

This is an extreme example of an old saddle that had always been mounted from the ground.  It would make a wonderful piece of decor in the home, or could be used for demonstrating what a crooked saddle looks like ... and that's about it!

Now, keep in mind here that the flocking can be compressed unevenly, but the tree itself should be straight.  And do check the flock - it may be hard or lumpy or full of divots; if it is, a strip-flock should be done.

Next, grab the stirrup bars and give them a healthy wiggle.  They should not move.  If they do, you might want to pass on that saddle.

Do a flex test of the tree next.  Prop the pommel on your thigh, grab the cantle, and pull the cantle toward the pommel (putting one hand in the middle of the seat can be helpful):

There should be some give (though some older synthetic trees won't flex at all), but this is a good example of too much flex - see the wrinkles in the seat and the bend?  While seat wrinkles don't always indicate a broken tree, being able to almost fold the saddle in half is a dead give-away.  Broken tree.  Didn't even have to open that one up to figure that out. 

Next, "mount" the saddle and clamp your knees against the area of the stirrup bars.  Squeeze your knees inward:

The pommel arch should not move at all.  If there's any give or funny noises, it could be a broken head plate.

Next, grab the dee rings and make sure they're firmly attached.  The dee is attached to what's called the "falldown staple", which is one of the major components responsible for keeping leather and tree together. 

Finally, check the billets and the stitching.  Grab the panels and give 'em a pull to make sure they're stitched on securely.  Inspect the stitching on the flaps / sweat flaps / knee roll/blocks.  Make sure the leather safe and sound and not cracking, flaking, torn or worn through anywhere.  Make sure the flaps are firmly attached to the tree, and check the billet webbing to make sure it's in good shape.

Again, it's really impossible to tell definitively if a saddle is in good shape without taking it apart, but these tests will tell you if that radical sort of operation is necessary.  And while some repairs are pretty easy to do and relatively inexpensive (billets usually run about $25 each, a strip flock is between $250 and $350, and stitching is usually pretty reasonable), the tree is another story.  Some saddlers will do tree repairs if they're minor, such as replacing a rivet, but some won't even attempt a tree repair because of safety and liability issues.  And while it's possible to re-tree a saddle, it's not cheap - think along the lines of $300 - $500 plus the cost of the tree (which varies greatly depending on the manufacturer, but do expect to drop $200 at the very least).  So if the used saddle you're looking at needs some repairs, do your math to make sure that "bargain" really is one!